( Courtesy Stemilt Growers )

Editor's note: Early-season production estimates for the Washington apple crop could be 5-10% off, following a windstorm the first week of September and ongoing wildfires, according to the Washington Apple Commission. See "Wind, fires affect Washington apple harvest, production estimate" for more information.

Sober acceptance of and aggressive responses to the coronavirus pandemic are creating a kind of “tempered” optimism among Washington’s apple grower-shippers and marketers in 2020.

“What sprang to mind is realism,” Mark Powers, president of the Yakima, Wash.-based Northwest Horticultural Council, said about his outlook on the upcoming Washington apple season. 

“The reality is that there are some significant challenges out there.”

Washington’s crop probably will be about the same as last year’s roughly 137 million 40-pound boxes, and harvest of some early varieties was underway by Aug. 21, Powers said.

“But the reality surrounding labor and the normal questions that Mother Nature brings are all out there, and I think the COVID is adding complications — there’s no other way to say it,” he said. 

“Logistics, timing, resources — I think there’s gonna be many more balls in the air this year than normal, simply because the impacts that COVID has had and will have over the next couple of months.”

Each harvest brings plenty of questions, but now there are even more hanging over the industry, Powers said.

“We normally harvest through the end of October-early November, and given what we’ve seen over the past couple of months, it’s hard to know exactly what the next few months are gonna bring, so there are all the normal challenges and optimism that a new harvest brings, but clearly more challenges and people looking at tough business decisions regarding potential labor shortages and decisions about priorities. If they can’t harvest everything, what do they harvest? People are making those kinds of plans and decisions.”

How’s the market?

One of the big questions involves market vibrancy, said Marcus Hartmann, vice president of operations with Bellevue, Wash.-based Pacificpro Inc.

“The 2019 apple crop was of very good quality and volume,” he said. 

“Prior to COVID, domestic apple volume shipments were lackluster due to a large crop and peak sizing on the smaller side. As a result, prices were down year over year, and export markets were not pulling their usual volume. Pricing remained soft and growers were experiencing smaller returns than previous seasons.”

To date, growing conditions for 2020 crop have been favorable, Hartmann said.

“We experienced a later start to summer weather conditions, which made it difficult to forecast statewide volumes, peak sizes, grades and color potential,” he said. 

Weather hasn’t been a negative issue this year, so far, “so we do expect this to be a nice size crop with clean fruit peaking in the 80-88 size profile, which is good for both retailers (72-88) and foodservice (100-138) — we should see a nice allotment of sizes on all varieties across the state-wide manifest,” Hartmann said.

Timing for the harvest likely will be normal across Washington, although there could be some local variance, Hartmann said.

Roger Aguirre, director of apples and pears with Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group agreed that such “stability” in weather patterns has been good for the crop.

“Fruit size, meanwhile, is trending downward, which presents more bagging opportunities in the future,” he said.

That could be a good thing, particularly this year, Aguirre said.

“This aligns well with the increasing consumer preference for bagged fruit, due to their perceived safety advantages,” he said.

Yakima, Wash.-based Sage Fruit Co. was anticipating 3- to 5-day-early starts, variety by variety, said Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing.

“We’ve experienced mild temperatures this summer; warm days and cool nights have brought on excellent fruit color,” he said. 

The first early galas and Honeycrisps came off the trees in mid-August, Sinks said.

“Overall, sizing looks to be similar to last season,” he said. “This year we will have a sizeable crop with exceptional quality and excellent marketing potential.”

The USDA’s Aug. 12 estimate predicted a Washington apple crop of 176.19 million 42-pound cartons, down 3% from last year. 

During the U.S. Apple Association’s Outlook conference Aug. 21, however, the state’s growers said the amount of fresh-packed fruit will likely be lower than last year’s 134 million 40-pound cartons.

Sizing

For some growers, sizing may be a concern this year, said John Long, manager/director of sales and operations Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc.’s Union Gap, Wash., unit.

“Right now we feel the size isn’t as big as we’d like on some varieties,” he said Aug. 21. “They just didn’t get off in April and May (at) quite as fast a start. When you don’t get cell division early, you don’t get the size.”

The fruit could “get caught up,” if weather permits, but even as is, “we look to have a good crop,” Long said.

“We definitely will see an increase on Honeycrisp, just because production is increasing, and some, like Cosmic Crisps — 370,000 boxes last year — we’ll probably double that and will double every year for the next five years, because there’s a lot planted.”

Red delicious and galas will comprise about half the crop; those two, plus fuji, Honeycrisp and granny smith account for 85-90% of the state’s crop, Long said.

The market should be healthy, he said.

“Overall, we felt coming through the spring, some effects of the COVID and especially early on, the wholesale markets were pretty poor, just because there wasn’t any restaurant and foodservice business,” Long said. 

“That has bounced back. We’ve had some very nice USDA food bank box business, that has really helped us. From the domestic side, we’re anticipating there will be a pretty decent market.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as of Aug. 28, tray-pack cartons of 2019 red delicious apples from the Wenatchee and Yakima districts in Washington were $15-18 for sizes 64 and 72; $12-17, 80; and $12-16, 100 and 113. A year earlier, prices were $15-18 on sizes 72, 80 and 88s, and $14-18, 100; and $14-17, 113.  

“The price on most varieties isn’t as high as we’d like it,” Long said. 

“For a grower to really make money after packing, harvest and growing charges, it needs to be in the $15-16 minimum, and this year, we’ve averaged about that.”

Early in the pandemic, some retailers tried to adapt through “SKU rationalization” as a way to streamline their operations. What resulted were “swaths of apples” disappearing from shelves, Oppy’s Aguirre said.

“Thankfully, we’re now looking for and hoping to find more normality,” he said, noting that “growers are cautiously optimistic.”

However, COVID-19’s economic toll has created “pressures on price,” and growers “aren’t necessarily getting the best return,” Aguirre said. “This is why we always work hard to navigate through the dynamic apple landscape, but it’s especially important now.”

Chelan, Wash.-based grower-shipper Chelan Fresh was still cleaning up last year’s crop and had completed packing the latest storage Honeycrisp and gala, as harvest of this year’s fruit approached, said Tim Evans, manager of domestic and export sales.

“We have been receiving new crop Premier Honeycrisp and Wildfire Gala and are seeing very good demand out of the gate on these two popular varieties,” he said. 

“The other varieties still on hand from last fall include fuji, granny smith, goldens and Pink Lady, but are moving along nicely and should clean up well as we move into mid-September.”

Only 8.2 million boxes remained from last season, as of Aug. 21, Evans said.

“All in all, we are very optimistic about the new crop this fall, with a lot of momentum coming out of one of the best cherry seasons in some time,” Evans said. 

“This gives us hope that we’ll be able to get pricing to where it needs to sustainable for our growers.” 

Related content:
Fruit harvest accelerating in the Northwest
Washington apple crop estimated similar to 2019
Apples lining up for strong August sales

 
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